Anticipation. It’s been choking the air since the Portland Trail Blazers eliminated the Denver Nuggets in seven games back in May. For five and a half months Denver fans have been salivating for another shot. That team was injured. It was tired. It had young players hitting walls after a long season and was still a shot here or there from a Western Conference Finals appearance. How much better could this coming season be?
You know when you can smell a delicious meal cooking in the oven, fabulous scents wafting through the house until every resident comes to investigate? Nuggets fandom has been staring at the oven and the timer for 170-odd days, just waiting for that first bite of whatever comes out.
Nikola Jokic is a first-team All-NBA centerpiece of the roster. Jamal Murray got paid to cement his place at the core of this team, and had another summer to work on his high-upside game. The Nuggets upgraded themselves at forward with Jerami Grant. Gary Harris and Will Barton had the opportunity to get healthy, and most of the roster had the chance to rest after a grueling season. And oh yeah, Michael Porter Jr. was the stealth weapon Denver had all summer to dream on after a slight injury cost him his summer league appearance.
“Nugg Life” is the term Denver fans have used to describe the particular brand of pain that being a Nuggets fan has brought. From the drug use and injuries that brought David “Skywalker” Thompson back to Earth to the failures in both draft position and draft picks that sabotaged rebuilds to the peculiar brand of Denver chaos that lets a team win 57 games only to fire its coach and lose its GM, Nugg Life is part and parcel of being a Denver Nuggets fan. The Broncos are the chosen team in town. The Avalanche are the adorable and accomplished young son, and the Rockies are the lovable screwup.
The Nuggets? Well they are attempting to be the Prodigal Son, the one that wandered and wasted opportunities and talent but finally returned home to claim a birthright. And there’s something in the air with this team, the notion that maybe, finally, Nugg Life might cede its authority over the franchise to an impish fate that brought a Hall Of Fame level talent to the Mile High City in the guise of a seven foot Joker from a small town in Serbia.
But after waiting an eternity from the playoff exit to the start of the new year, fans were chomping at the bit to see it pay off. Balletic offense, waves of bodies on defense, and revenge for the playoff exit of last year. Everything was in place.
And then Jokic received three first-quarter fouls and sat most of the half. There were approximately 843 whistles blown, 72 offensive fouls, and multiple eye gouges enacted against the beauty of the game in this 48 minute contest. Denver couldn’t hit a shot inside the three-point arc, couldn’t defend without fouling, and couldn’t get a rhythm all game.
But still that delightful scent lingered in the air. Denver should have been blown out in a game played this poorly, but they made their distance shots and hung around. The bench stepped up - as it will be expected to do many times this year - and picked up the early slack from the starters. The starters returned the favor in the fourth quarter when they pounded home a messy, inelegant, beautiful statement win to snap Portland’s 17-game home opening winning streak and spoiled the first game of their 50th season celebration. And of course the driving force behind that late dominance was Nikola Jokic, who simply would not be denied.
This is not the meal I hope the Nuggets serve me the rest of the year. Malone might have a stroke before January if they play many more games like that. But simply watching a team struggle in that fashion and yet never lose touch with their playoff-caliber opponent was impressive. The game went about as poorly as an opener can go while still coming out victorious. In a way, that early anticipation was paid off in spades. This is a Denver team that can play poorly and still win. It can lose Jokic for a half, rely on the bench to avoid being blown out, play late defense against a team with creative scoring guards and eke out hard-fought victories. This isn’t a team of front-runners, despite the youth up and down the roster. This is a team build to astound and delight as the year goes on.
First regular season game down, eighty-one to go before we get that playoff dessert. Eighty one more times to witness the sublime and the ridiculous, to rail against officials and groan at missed opportunities - and to revel in glorious, glorious basketball.
I’m anticipating every single one.